Why saying “no” is a bad idea

One thing I try to teach all of my clients is that saying “no” is a bad idea. As people, most of whom understand what “no” means, using that word comes naturally. We utilize it beyond a simple rejection or refusal to consult, we also use “no” to mean “stop” or “don’t do that”.

“No”, put simply, is a word with multiple meanings and given that, how can we expect our dogs to understand what it means? (If you don’t have time to read the details, scroll below for the too-long-didn’t-read section)

One thing that will set back training with your dog is a lack of clear communication. When we teach a dog a new skill, we have to try and be as clear as possible. Generally, that means we need to start by showing our dog what we want (we do that with luring in most cases), then we reinforce that behaviour and fade out the lure, and once our dog understands what we want them to do, we add the verbal cue in so that we can clearly communicate by words alone with our dog.

Many (probably most) dog guardians will actually start using verbal cues right away while they are luring and a lot of them will have success, that’s because our dogs are extremely good at putting things together even if we don’t communicate it perfectly. But often, that lack of clarity does matter and my clients will joyfully say “Hey! I finally got the down on verbal only, look!” and proceed to have the dog sit there and look at them confused while they stand perfectly still and don’t respond to “Down”. It’s not that the dog is stubborn, it’s that they are confused. In most cases, their guardian has introduced the verbal cue while still using body language cues without realizing (hand signals, bending over, etc).

So if some dogs learn well even if we aren’t great communicators, can’t we use “No” with those dogs?

The answer is: No. “Down”, “Sit”, “Stay” etc all have clear meanings to our dogs. We expand their meanings as we take those skills from the living room to the yard, to the park, etc. But they all mean a specific skill. Instead, when we use “No” our dog doesn’t know what to do. We might be saying “No” to them jumping up on us. We might be saying “No” to them pulling, or even jumping up on the counters, etc. Those are all different behaviours for our dogs. We just are not consistent enough with what “no” means.

Most of you are probably using “No” to get your dog to stop doing specific behaviours and potentially as a no-reward-marker (a word you use to tell your dog during training that they did not do the desired skill). So how can you teach your dog how to behave if you can’t tell them what is bad?

Well, put simply, you don’t need to tell them they did something wrong. Over 5 years ago I decided to experiment with my dogs and stop using my no-reward-marker (oops). I stopped cold turkey and what did I find? No significant negative change in behaviour from my dogs, in fact, eliminating that word from my vocabulary resulted in my dogs showing less frustration in training and also increased my skills in setting them up for success. Things actually improved!

So if your dog is doing something wrong, what can you do? Use a positive interrupter. A positive interrupter is something that you say to interrupt your dog’s behaviour. What makes it positive? Your dog gets a reward (food or praise) for listening. You might be asking “Won’t I be rewarding them for doing the bad thing?”. The answer is: No. The positive interrupter can be used when you are interrupting a “bad” behaviour but you’re going to reward your dog coming to you, not the “bad” behaviour. Pro tip: If this is a repeat unwanted behaviour, it’s time to look at how you could set up the environment to eliminate this behaviour from happening in the first place or teach an incompatible behaviour.

For me, the positive interrupter is typically kissing sounds because it works with most dogs. I follow that sound with an excited “yes!” the moment they come towards me.

If you stop saying no and other no-reward-markers, you won’t stop progressing on your training, instead, you’ll learn how to become a better communicator with your dog.

TLDR:

  • No is a word used for too many meanings in human language and therefore is confusing to your dog.
  • No-reward-markers (sometimes a no, or oops, etc) are not required to advance training, in fact eliminating them may lead to less frustration and more errorlesslearning.
  • Instead of using “no”, try to use a positive interrupter.
  • A positive interrupter is something you say to get your dog to stop a behaviour but it comes with a positive consequence.
  • It won’t reward bad behaviour, instead you’ll be rewarding your dog coming back to you.
  • My sequence is 1. Dog is doing unwanted behaviour. 2. I say the positive interrupter. 3. Dog comes towards me. I say “yes!”. 4. Once dog reaches me, I reward with food (or praise if no food is nearby).
  • If unwanted behaviours keep repeating themselves, look at how you can modify the environment to keep it from occurring in the first place or teach your dog an incompatible behaviour.

Have you tried doing …nothing?

There is an immense pressure in society to have a perfect dog. It seems that, for at least a part of society, if your dog doesn’t listen to your every instruction, you’re not a good dog guardian.

It’s pretty wild that complete obedience is the goal when co-habitating and sharing a relationship with another species.

Nevertheless, the pressure is there. So when our dogs do something that we think they shouldn’t, like an alert bark, chasing squirrels, digging, sniffing something for 5 minutes while on walk, we feel like “bad guardians”. Like we don’t have control over the animal we’re supposed to “control”.

Here is the thing: Dogs aren’t robots. They’re dogs. They do dog things. Many of those dog things are behaviours we label as nuisance or weird, but they’re totally normal for a DOG.

I get asked a LOT by clients on how to stop their dog from barking, how to stop them from digging, how to stop them from having zoomies etc. There are times when dog behaviours can be a problem. Non-stop barking is a problem. Digging up flower beds everywhere, is a problem. Zoomies into the road, is a problem. But 90% of the time, these behaviours are not a problem.

When your dog likes to dig in one corner of the yard, have you ever considered letting them have that corner?

When your dog alert barks a couple times to tell you someone is arriving, they’re doing what they were bred to do in most cases. Ever tried letting them do the thing they were bred to do?

If your dog gets the zoomies in your yard because they are so happy, let them.

Sometimes the best option is to do nothing at all and to just let your dog be a dog. Why is this the best option? First, it’s easy and won’t be adding a lot to your training list, but most importantly, in most cases, your dog is fulfilling a need they have. If we don’t let them live like dogs, then what is the point?

Now, some behaviours are a problem and you should reach out to a certified and humane dog trainer. Most of the time, we can find an alternative which allows your dog to meet their needs in a safe way.

But when your dog does something that triggers your anxiety because you feel like some stranger might judge you, ask yourself if it really matters? Is this behaviour dangerous? Is it harmful to anyone or your dog? If it’s not, and it’s harmless (like spending 5 minutes sniffing a hydrant), then I propose you do nothing.

Let your dog be a dog.

No, your dog is not just being dramatic

There has been a disappointing, even quite disturbing trend, on social media lately. Accounts have been posting videos of dogs in distress, as “funny” videos of dogs just “being dramatic”.

The dogs in all cases are not in life threatening situations. In fact they are often in very normal situations such as having their nails clipped or being groomed. So the posters just assume that their dogs are “being dramatic”. Many of the dogs are also huskies and the posters will often just say “huskies are just dramatic” to justify their videos.

Part of me understands why some people will believe their dogs are just dramatic. How is it not dramatic for a dog to have such a wild display of fearful behaviour at something as benign as having their nails clipped? After all, once the procedure is done, the dog goes back to normal. That’s just drama right?

No. It’s not drama. It’s a massive emotional reaction to something that we know is not life threatening, but the dogs do not necessarily know that. The dogs are uncomfortable, scared and often in a total panic. They are crying out for help, not for entertainment.

Dogs have many fears and phobias of things we would think of as posing no threat. A great deal of the work I do with clients is on separation anxiety. Is the dog’s life threatened when we leave them? No. Do dogs with separation anxiety act like it is? Yes. Are they just “being dramatic”? No. They have a fear of being alone and they need compassion and a measured and carefully executed approach to allow them to get past their fear.

The dogs in these videos are the same. They are scared and panicked and should be approached with compassion and empathy, not laughter. Dogs can be taught that grooming is safe or that having their nails done is nothing to worry about. Dog trainers help their clients achieve these goals all of the time.

If you have one of these dogs and you’re wondering what to do because your dog needs the procedure that terrifies them? First, see if there are alternatives such as teaching your dog to use a scratch board for nail trims. If there aren’t and the procedure is absolutely necessary, then speak to your veterinarian about medical options which could help your dog better tolerate the procedure.

As for huskies, they may be seen as a more “dramatic” breed because they vocalize more (I know, I’ve got a husky mix who easily falls into this category) but that doesn’t mean that when they are howling and essentially screaming for help, that they do not feel like they are in distress.

Lastly, if you had a terrible phobia of spiders, or snakes, and someone locked you in a room with hundreds of non-venomous species and you lost it, how would you feel if someone just labelled you as “dramatic” when you freaked out. Fears and phobias are just as real for dogs as they are for humans.

Be a leader, not the alpha

The alpha myth still runs rampant in the k9 world. So if it comes to you as a surprise that “alpha” is a myth, you’re far from alone! The alpha myth, which says that dogs have similar social structure to wolves and that wolf packs operate with one alpha which must remain dominant over the others, is a lie. If you want to read more about this, then I recommend this article.

So where does that leave us guardians? What is our role? We have the role of leader. We’re essentially the team leader in our team of 2. How is this different than being an alpha? Well, let’s go over what it means to be a good leader.

A good leader provides their team members with opportunities to learn and doesn’t expect them to know what to do without instruction. Our dogs don’t come with the knowledge of how this human world works and what is okay and what’s not. It’s critical that we, as leaders, give them the training and opportunities they need to learn and to learn fairly. Good leaders ensure their team members aren’t overwhelmed and set up to fail. They set them up for success! That’s what we have to do with our dogs. If our dog’s aren’t getting something, or they’re not learning, it’s on us, not them.

A good leader takes responsibility. When you’re in charge, you’re in charge, and that means you are responsible for your team members. This doesn’t mean you need to discipline your team members, but it means that when someone screws up, you’re there to set them up to succeed next time, not to yell at them and set them up to fail again. Good leaders know that they are responsible for setting the environment and providing their team members with what they need to be successful. For dogs, that could mean not exposing them to stressful situations, or even hiring a certified trainer when you’re in over your head.

A good leader is a clear communicator. Good leaders make sure that they figure out the best way to communicate to their individual team members. With dogs, this means ensuring that we are communicating clearly. That means communicating our house rules, our outdoor rules, and letting our dogs know when we’ve got this and they can stand down. It means setting them up for errorless learning as much as possible (errorless learning is really synonymous with clear communication). It also means we don’t change the rules on them partway through and then get angry.

A good leader advocates for their team. Good leaders will advocate on behalf of their team members. For dogs, that can be in the form of asking people not to interact with them when they aren’t comfortable. It could be asking the other dog guardian to leash their dog up so that they feel safe. It could be asking another pet professional not to continue putting your dog in a stressful situation. Your dog doesn’t have a human voice and that means, as the leader, you have to be their voice.

A good leader is not: someone who reaches for punishment, someone who doesn’t care how each team member is doing, someone who insists on punishing or correcting unwanted behaviour, someone who makes a “phsshht!” sound and physically touches a dog, some who needs to be seen as “the boss”, someone who thinks they should be respected more than they respect their team members, someone who sets someone up to fail.

Strive to be the kind of leader that you’ve seen others thrive under. Someone who is fair, compassionate, recognizes when others are struggling and commits to helping them. Someone who doesn’t bring their ego into the room. Someone who knows that no one wins unless everyone wins. Someone who cares.

Never be the alpha, instead, be a good leader.

Emergency kits for backcountry k9’s

Mike and Buffy taking in the views from the alpine

I have been adventuring in the backcountry with my dogs for many years. From the moment I had Cody we were hitting the trails in the parks near Ottawa. Although we spent a lot of time on those trails, it was never a remote enough for me to bring around emergency supplies and I just thought if something happened, I would figure it out.

Fast forward a couple years and we found ourselves in the backcountry in Cape Scott Park at the northern tip of Vancouver Island. My sister and I both had our dogs with us (Buffy around yet so I just had Cody) and I had suggested what looked like a short cut to get around the beach as the tide was coming in. The trail we were on was rugged and overgrown with fallen trees and a rope to safely descend because of the steepness. I remember thinking “I’m not equipped to handle this if Cody get hurts”. Luckily, that didn’t happen and his agility impressed me once again. But the thought stuck with me.

Now, living in the mountains and adventuring with backcountry hikes, scrambles, backcountry skiing and days at the crag, I’ve learned which supplies to bring with me to keep my dogs safe and to be ready to respond if I need to. It’s been almost 6 years of refining my kit and figuring out what is necessary to always have on me when I go out with them.

First aid supplies for K9s

These items are not in any way exhaustive of what an emergency kit should be, or me offering you any advice on how to deal with k9 emergencies, every situation is unique and common sense should always be used.  If you aren’t comfortable providing first aid for your pooch, there are lots of courses available to help change that, including online Pet First Aid.

Here is what I typically have on me:

  • Standard First Aid Supplies – These are the supplies I can use for k9’s or humans. My kit includes triangular bandages, gauze, scissors, tweezers, alcohol swabs, cotton swaps, q-tips, nitrile gloves, and gauze pads of various sizes.
  • Qwikstop – This is a no brainer. It can be used on both k9’s and humans but you’re more likely to need it for your pooch.
  • Lineman’s Pliers – If you don’t have this on a  multi-tool with you, then pack a separate one, especially for overnight trips. Porcupines are an unfortunate part of the backcountry and these can help you with a lot of situations but especially porcupine quills. If you are more than a day from civilization or depending on the location, you might have to remove these yourself. To do that you’re likely to need help from someone holding and calming your pooch. As a minimum, you can use these pliers to cut the quills so at least your dog won’t be hurting every two seconds by rubbing them against something. Always a good idea to see the vet after a porcupine encounter.
  • Benadryl – I always have some of this in my kit. Benadryl is safe to take for dogs and it will help you if your furry pal gets into something they shouldn’t or, if you have a dog like Buffy, and your dog gets a record amount of mosquito bites. Make sure to speak to your veterinarian before you use Benadryl to make sure it’s appropriate for your dog and you know the proper dose.
  • Pepto Bismol – This isn’t something I always carry, but it’s worth considering if you’re heading into the backcountry on a multi-day trek. Pepto can help with nausea and diarrhea for your pooch. But be careful of which product you buy, not all the Pepto Bismol products are safe for dogs. Make sure to speak to your veterinarian before you use Pepto Bismol to make sure it’s appropriate for your dog and you know the proper dose.
  • Self-adhesive Bandage Wrap – Worth its weight in gold, this is my most often used item in my kit along with some gauze. It’s worth carrying a full roll of this stuff. If your dog gets some paw pad injuries, wrapping it with some gauze and this bandage can buy your dog a little comfort on the way out. I’ve used this on multiple occasions with my dogs.
  • Sam Splint – This is something I carry for both my dogs and my human friends. Sam Splints are light and handy to have around. Although if your dog does break a bone in their leg, you might have a pretty hard time splinting it (mainly depending on their ability to tolerate you adding to their pain momentarily), but it’s good to have handy if you need it.
  • Pain Killers – If you’re headed onto a big trek, it’s worth a vet visit to pick up some k9 pain killers in case something goes down. Just like us, it’s nice to have something to numb the pain a bit on the way out of the backcountry after the shit hits the fan. You must speak to your veterinarian and use pain killers prescribed for your dog, over the counter pain killers are not appropriate for your dog.
  • Pedialyte 50/50 – This is a hydration solution that can be used for dogs and people. Your dog may encounter something in the backcountry which causes vomiting, the pedialyte can help you maintain your dog’s hydration until you get them to the vet. Dogs can go days without food if they need to, but like us they are susceptible to dehydration.
  • A lightweight tarp – This way seem odd to bring but this is one of the most useful tools for backcountry treks. Not only is to good to set up if you need to get out of the sun or rain, but you can use this to carry your injured dog out if it comes to that. There are some dog-sling products out there where it is a specifically designed piece of equipment to carry out your dog and it certainly is easier to manage than using a tarp for this, however if you’re doing a long trek, you might be more inclined to carry something that you can use daily as well.
  • Field Guide to Dog First Aid by Rancy Acker, DVM – This small book comes along on my bigger backcountry treks. It’s a handy guide that covers all kinds of situations you may find yourself in and includes information on how to stabilize your dog for specific injuries and when you need to get out as fast as possible and to the vet. For me, it’s worth the extra grams in weight to have this information handy if I need it.

The items mentioned above might not help your dog in a very serious situation, but they will come in handy for a lot of more minor injuries they may sustain (and are also more likely to sustain). I’m not a veterinarian so I can’t provide you with advice on what to do if your dog is very seriously injured, the best advice I can offer is keeping your dogs on leash when you’re unsure of the terrain and what could be around so that you don’t get into that situation in the first place. A lot of backcountry injuries happen to dogs that are off-leash. Dogs will chase prey off of cliffs, I’ve seen it. So don’t risk it if you are in unfamiliar terrain and never ever break the leash laws in parks. You risk ruining it for the rest of us.

If there are items you never hit the trail without, let me know! I’m always looking to improve my kit!

Adventuring with senior dogs

Cody and Buffy enjoying some summit views.

My dogs are 8 and 11 years old. I can’t believe I just typed that. It feels like not very long ago they were 2 and 5 years old. Taking care of senior dogs is different. I realized a couple years ago, as my oldest dog Cody officially became a senior, that I had to make some changes.

I love adventuring with my dogs but I couldn’t treat him like a little 4×4 machine that could take anything on without consequence. Neither of my dogs are small, Cody weighs usually between 55-60 lbs and Buffy weighs 65-70lbs. Larger dogs not only age faster but also tend to have more mobility issues as they age. Ignoring these facts wasn’t going to set me up to keep them in tip top shape. So I made some changes.

Supplements 

Enter the world of senior dogs and enter the world of supplements. Glucosamine, Chondroitin, MSM, omega oil, salmon oil…the list goes on and on. It can be very challenging to navigate supplements and I recommend speaking to your veterinarian about which supplement may be beneficial to your senior dog. I am in no way a supplement expert but I will say that when I started to notice Cody was sore after big days out, we started adding supplements to his food and I tried several. I tried oils, glucosamine chews, and powders. I honestly did not see much of a difference until I tried Tri-Acta. A sport dog trainer recommended it to me and I have to say, I see significantly less soreness in Cody after big days. I even started giving it to Buffy in a preventative way a couple of years ago. Make sure to consult your veterinarian, but supplements could potentially help your senior adventure dog.

Diet 

Supplements are not the only important thing you want to get right, the food you feed your dog is also equally important. Firstly, I am not a canine nutritionist by any means, but the information I am sharing has come from conversations with veterinarians. You should speak with a certified k9 nutritionist or your veterinarian if you have any questions about nutrition. If your senior is not on a senior diet, I would reconsider it. The joint support in senior diets is important, but so is the lower calorie content. It’s important to keep your senior at a healthy weight. If your dog is overweight, that is more pressure on bones and that can lead to arthritis in the senior years. Keeping them trim and fit will keep them mobile and may help with arthritis. If you are not sure if your dog is overweight, a quick stop at a vet should help you. But in general, ribs should be just slightly visible or easy to feel for dogs with thick fur and hips should be defined from the top. 

Fitness

Fitness is obviously important for any adventure dog and as they age, you shouldn’t assume they can do the big hike they did years ago. But, I’m going to assume your dog is fairly fit, or used to the activities you already do together. If you’re getting into adventuring with a senior dog, you’ll want to build slowly so that they have a chance to adapt. What I’m mostly going to address here is additional I fitness training. Working on improving the overall muscle strength, especially for stabilizing muscles. So how do you work on that? Well first, you’ll need some props for your dog to use. An aerobic step, balance board, small mat, even a rolled up towel can work. The goal is to get your dog to step up onto a higher surface. This may seem like nothing, but it actually shifts the weight and works their muscles. So work on teaching this skill. You can lure your dog to start, or shape the behaviour by saying “yes” or clicking a clicker every time they start to interact with the object. Be sure to use lots of rewards. Your dog will LOVE his fitness training. Once you have mastered getting both front paws up, start to work on the back paws, this one is trickier for most dogs. You can even offer variations like one paw up, or do two paws but on a wobbly surface. Make it fun, change things up, and start small. Just a couple reps to start and work your way up. Your dog can’t tell you if they are sore, so start small. 

K9 Physiotherapy

One of the best things I did for my senior dogs was to see a k9 physiotherapist prior to a problem arising. I didn’t want to wait for injuries to appear and I was looking to see if they were both still in the good shape I was hoping for. I found out so much valuable information. Both my dogs had areas where they were tight and some areas where they were weak. I got exercises to practice to help them get over these weaknesses and I was given some great day-to-day advice to help prevent more injuries, including no more jumping out of the car. They make it look easy, but it’s hard on their bodies, especially their front limbs and neck. I can’t recommend this enough. I was lucky at the time and lived in Calgary, so accessing the Canine Fitness Centre was easy. I hope you can find some help close by.

Last words

Adventuring with senior dogs is about balance. It’s a balance between keeping them active but not over doing it. I learned that a couple summers ago when I pushed Cody very hard on what was a much more challenging scramble than expected. He limped the last km to the car and I realized he can’t do it all anymore. Keep adventuring with your seniors, but keep in mind they might go harder than they should, and prevention goes a very long way. I know I plan to keep getting out there with my dogs as long as possible.,

Hiking with reactive dogs

Cody, taking in the views on a scramble in the Canadian rockies

I love my dogs, I love mountains, and I especially love both together. I love taking my pooches on all kinds of outdoor adventures because they love it just as much as I do. I can see a switch go off in my dogs when we hit the trails; they are engaged, sniffing, exploring, stomping over everything, rubbing themselves on all kinds of surfaces (…sometimes poop) and just being dogs.

My dogs both have very different personalities. Buffy is a happy go lucky dog. She is what people think of when they think of friendly dogs. She happily greets everyone she meets, she loves getting in for petting, and will play fetch with anyone. Cody has a very different personality. I rescued Cody when he was roughly 6-8 months old. He had not been properly socialized and the world terrified him. We worked hard on changing that and today he can go for a walk on a busy city street and usually warms up to strangers within minutes. But he’s also dog reactive and since he got badly bit by a dog last year, his reactivity has been worse than it was prior to that incident (we’re actively working on this, but as reactive dog owners, this is a process).

What is it like to hike with a reactive dog? 

When I go hiking with my dogs, I bring my regular safety supplies, water, snacks and poop bags for the dogs. But the most important tool I bring is a leash. My dogs are rarely unleashed while hiking and this isn’t because they don’t have a good recall (they do). This is for 3 main reasons: 1) if I’m on a busy trail I know I might run into people with other reactive dogs or people that just don’t like dogs and I want to respect that, 2) that’s generally the rules for the maintained trails and parks I visit, and 3) wildlife. For obvious reasons dogs and wildlife don’t mix.

What my leashes do not help with, are encounters with off leash dogs. Let me describe what happens to me on a very regular basis as I try to hike and enjoy the outdoors with my dogs on leash (in a leash-required area). I’m heading down a hiking trail, or up, usually in the woods, and suddenly I see a dog standing on the trail ahead. Often ahead of its owner. It stops and freezes and stares down my dogs. My stress rises immediately, will this dog be friendly? Will the owner recall it? Will the owner be able to recall it? I notice the reaction in my dogs as well. They are trying to read the dog ahead and see if it is a threat. Buffy’s body language usually relaxes quickly, but Cody’s gets stiffer. He is scared. He knows he is leashed and trapped. He can’t escape and so he knows he might have to “get them before they get me”. I usually start to tell the other dog to stay away. Then the owner appears and usually scrambles to come grab their dog and apologizes. But often they shout “it’s ok! My dog is friendly!”. I can’t tell you how much that phrase irks me. Just because your dog is friendly, does not mean it should come trampling over to my dogs. Leash reactivity (when a dog is reactive on leash due to being unable to escape) is very common and not an issue that only reactive dogs deal with. So even if your dog is friendly, them trotting over to a dog who is leashed is just plain unfair to the leashed dog. The leashed dog you encounter with your off leash dog may be nervous, uncomfortable, even terrified of your friendly dog. 

Reactive dogs need exercise and they need the outdoors as much as other dogs. It’s important to share the space and obey the rules of the outdoors so that we don’t lose access to these spaces with our dogs. There are already a lot of parks which have started banning dogs, I don’t want that trend to continue. We should all just adventure responsibly with our best friends. 

Tips for hiking with a reactive dog

So how do you hike with a reactive dog successfully? Firstly, if your dog is fairly reactive – when you see another dog your dog pretty much always lunges at the end of their leash and barks – then, if you have access to a positive reinforcement science based dog trainer, it is worth every penny to invest in some reactive training. Some training facilities have reactive specific classes where dogs can work in an environment which puts their comfort first and foremost. Those classes will teach you the skills that you need to help your dog deal with their fears. If you don’t have a facility nearby that offers reactive classes, then it’s worth hiring a trainer for some private sessions. This can even be done virtually!

Beyond private training or classes, the best thing you can do is bring high value treats with you to help you re-direct your dog (once they spot that dog, treats go in front of the nose and re-direct them off to the side of the trail with you). A common misconception is that if you give treats to a dog that is reacting, you will reward his reactivity. This is wrong. Reactivity is caused by strong emotions of fear or uncertainty (sometimes frustration) and food can help change your dogs emotions. It will not reward the reactivity.  A good harness to help you control your dog will also be easier on you and your dog (if they are lunging at the end of the leash on a collar, it puts a lot of pressure onto their necks – this is not good for them). It is absolutely paramount that you feel in control of your dog when it is leashed, so if this is something you are struggling with by only using a collar, a front clip harness should help. Avoid temptation to reach for tools like a choke collar or prong collar. If you are struggling to find something that works for your dog, reach out to me and I can offer suggestions.

Once you have redirected off to the side of the trail, an “emergency scatter” is a great tool in that moment. Grab a handful of treats and throw them to the ground so they scatter. You should be at a distance (when possible) where your dog can focus on finding the treats and not the dog passing by. If you’ve been working with a trainer and are practising a look-at-that protocol, the side of the trail could be a good spot to practice that if you think you will be successful. Otherwise, scatter those treats!

I also recommend teaching a directional change cue. I use “this way” with my dogs and it cues them that we’re changing direction immediately and they have to look at me to see where we are going. To teach this, practice at home, somewhere without triggers, and have high value treats and a leash. Walk around with your dog and then say “this way” and immediately put a treat to their nose and lure them into a directional change with you. Keep practising this until your dog starts to get excited when you say “this way” or whatever you called the cue (fun alternative cues for this skill include “abort!” “oh shit!” or “nope!”). Eventually you won’t need the lure, but for the first few times, use that lure to get them super excited to follow you.

Finally, what do you do if an off-leash dog runs up to you and the owners are nowhere to be seen? Throw dog treats/food as far as you can behind them and try to get out of there while yelling for their owners to get their dog. Yes, that dog could have a food allergy, but if their guardians were worried about that, they wouldn’t let them hike ahead of them in an on-leash area (also presumably busy area). This is the safest option you have.

Lastly, make sure you and your dog have fun. Hiking should be a fun activity for both of you and if you are too stressed or your dog is too stressed, you should definitely get some training so that you can both be comfortable heading out there. Happy hiking! 

Adventuring with dogs – The basics

I like to adventure (scramble, climb, hike, sleep in the backcountry, splitboard, cross country ski, trail run, etc…). As much as possible, I like to bring my adventure dogs along with me. Cody and Buffy have both summited mountains, been on backcountry treks, skijored and been backcountry skiing with me. This post is all about some of my basic tips for having fun in the mountains with your dog safely. It goes without saying though, use your judgment to adapt these to your dog and your adventures. What’s right for us, is not going to work for everyone.

Know your dogs stamina

Imagine you have never hiked a day in your life (maybe you haven’t, that’s totally ok, we all start somewhere) and your best buddy dragged you up a 1,000 meter vertical gain trail, you might get up it, but you won’t be enjoying yourself and you’ll certainly feel it later. Our dogs can’t speak with us to say it’s too hard, and often they will push themselves past their limits. So if you are just starting to get your dog into hiking, take it easy for a bit. Taking it easier will also be a great time to start teaching them some important skills for the trail like loose leash walking.

A note about puppies: I’ve often been asked by clients if they can bring their puppies hiking. I think it’s beneficial for puppies to experience all the activities their guardians want to do with them. However, we can’t ignore that their growth plates have not closed and excessive exercise can be detrimental and potentially lead to issues down the line. If you’re debating this, I recommend speaking to your vet. I’ve always advised clients to speak with their vet, and if they go, make sure to allow the puppy to stop whenever they need to. Usually, you can accommodate bringing a puppy by carrying an empty backpack to put them in and carry them when they’ve had their fill.

The goldilocks temperature 

Both my dogs have fairly thick coats but one of my dogs is a husky mix. Her fur is so thick that it’s hard to find the skin. So when it’s -35c outside, she is happy and content. My other dog, not so much. The reverse happens in the summer where my shepherd mix is all too happy to bathe in the sun all day and my husky mix spends the summer panting and trying to find shade or a pool to cool off. Knowing what your dog can handle for temperature is very important. Don’t assume that just because you can stay cool or warm that they can easily do that. In the summer months they need breaks to pant, drink and cool down. In the winter you may need to provide them with coats and booties if they don’t have a thick coat and depending on the physical level of your activity. It’s always a good idea to pick shorter objectives on really hot or really cold days, especially when you are getting to know what your dog can handle.

Recall

It comes without saying that we like to let our dogs off leash. When we head into the backcountry though, there are a lot of potential problems that can occur when your dog is off leash. I will let my dogs off leash sometimes but it’s usually only when the following conditions are met:

1. I am not in dense trees and I can see for miles.

2. There have been no recent wildlife sightings on that trail.

3. There aren’t a lot of other people or dogs around.

4. The leash-laws permit it. Please don’t abuse park leash-laws. This is how dogs get banned.

Practising your recall, especially distracted recalls, will pay off huge dividends when you need it out in the wild. Remember that having a dog off-leash greatly increases the consequences of running into a bear. Don’t be fooled into feeling safer with your k9 pal, the increase in risk from your pooch bounding around the woods off leash shouldn’t be ignored. If you don’t have good recall skills, then register for a recall clinic or hire a training to work on this. It is a skill you can improve greatly with the right instruction and support.

Always Leash on the summit 

It’s always tempting in the alpine to unleash your pooch since you can usually see the terrain and any potential critters coming. I recommend leashing your dog up on the summit. Dogs can trip people which is something we really don’t want on the top of a mountain. But mostly, some dogs do not understand that you shouldn’t walk to the tip of the edge and lean over (rocks crumble – not a good idea). Both my dogs are very different on summits. Cody will stay a full foot or two from the edge before leaning to look over a little. Buffy will walk right up to the edge and scare the shit out of everyone on the summit. So yes, they are leashed up on top because geology is temporary, rocks break and I want to make sure that everyone gets home safe.

How to not get pulled down a mountain 

So you summited your first peak with your dog or maybe you just hiked up a steep pass. Either way, now you have to go down and you are dreading it because your dog pulls. Loose leash walking is a skill everyone should work on but dogs are poor at generalizing and they may walk loose on a leash in the city and pull your arm off in the mountains. So instead, start teaching your pooch to stay behind you on the downhill. My dogs have learned this skill and as someone who spends a lot of time going down steep trails, it’s one of my favourite skills they have. As soon as the slope goes down they know to stick beside or behind me.

How do you train this? Well as always, the easiest and quickest way to train a dog is to use food. Dogs are motivated by food and we can use this motivation to show them exactly what we want. So if you’re willing to bring some treats with you (which you absolutely should), make sure your treats and dogs are on the same side (I.e. Your dog is on your right and so are your treats). Then grab a couple treats and work that loose leash walking as you go downhill. Be consistent with this and you will have a pooch who is happy and excited about the downhill.

If you don’t have food, then it’s gonna take a little longer. Basically you’re going to stop when they get ahead of you. Wait until they stop pulling then start to walk again. Make sure you praise your pup when they aren’t pulling. Use narrow trail to your advantage and get your pup behind you before you hike down them. However, be warned, this method is much slower than using treats and much harder to be consistent with since you’re inevitably tired and want to get home at the end of your hike.

Another great tool to consider is getting a Y shaped harness with a front and back clip. You can use the front clip while going downhill so that your dog cannot pull as hard. They are a great management tool while you’re training your pup to stop pulling.

These are just a couple of tips for getting out and adventuring with your k9 best friend. Mountain adventures with my dogs are some of my favourite adventures and I hope you’ll get out and enjoy your adventuring as much as I do.

You (yes you!) matter

You matter. It’s the simplest way I can think to put this message out there. But it is this simple: you matter.

If you’re working on raising a new puppy, or working through some frustrating behaviours, or maybe even working on behavioural modification for aggressive behaviours, it doesn’t matter what the issue is, what matters is that you recognize that you are a part of this equation.

All-to-often, dog guardians suffer in silence and don’t reach out for help. They believe the burden of whatever issue they are working on, is theirs alone to bear. Worse yet, many dog guardians feel that they have to show up, every single day, and work at their best, and support their dog a their best, and meet a very high bar they have set for themselves.

I’m not saying you don’t have to take care of your dog. Obviously you have to meet their needs. But if you’re working on complex or frustrating behaviours, you’re allowed to take a day off. You’re allowed to prioritize yourself over your dog once in a while. You’re allowed to also have your own needs met.

If you’re working through separation anxiety, you might feel like this doesn’t apply to you, but it does. Ask for help. People are often very willing to come over and hang out with your dog so that you can go take some much needed time for yourself. Asking for help is difficult, but every client I have ever worked with on separation anxiety has been able to find people to help them.

See yourself as a part of a team, because you are. If you’re not at your best, how can you be at your best with your dog? If you’re not rested, feeling better mentally, and ready to take on the challenges head-on, it’s not going to be fun.

Lots of dog training and behavioural modification work isn’t always fun, but if it’s something you dread, it’s not going to progress well. Inevitably, you’re going to hit a wall, where you resent your dog and the situation you’re in. That is not a fun place to be and it’s not somewhere that you have to be.

Take breaks from training. It’s really that simple. It’s okay to take a day or two, or even a week or more off training. Sometimes you need a break in order to re-charge and even re-connect with your dog through activities you both love.

If you’re working with a trainer, reach out to them to discuss your struggles. A good trainer will be empathetic and will support you. In fact, many trainers understand your struggles. There are a number of dog trainers who got into the profession because they owned a challenging dog (myself included). We’re all too familiar with these feelings.

Bottom line, you’re a part of a team and that means you matter just as much as your teammate. Take care of yourself. Do activities you and your dog love to do. Do activities without your dog that you love. Give yourself permission to honour how you feel and that this process is not easy. Take a break from training if you need to. But do not constantly prioritize your dog and others above yourself. This isn’t the best way to take care of your dog. Ask for help when you need it. You matter.

As seen on TV: Canine Intervention

Good dog training generally doesn’t make for good television. Television shows are about instant gratification. Magnificent makeovers done in 20 minutes. Full home builds and renovations in 55 minutes. It’s about showing one extreme to another. When it comes to good dog training (by this, I mean ethical, humane and science-based dog training) on television, history has not been kind to our furry companions.

The Dog Whisperer is by far the most popular dog training show that’s ever been aired and was based entirely on disproven “pack” theory and old-school (read: not ethical, not humane and not science-based) dog training techniques. If you want to find out more about the harm of the Dog Whisperer show, a quick google search can provide you with dozens upon dozens of articles and position statements from large reputable animal welfare and behaviour organizations.

In February, Netflix launched Canine Intervention. A show hosted by the lead trainer, and owner of Cali K9, Jas Leverette. When this show was announced earlier in the year, a petition was created to try and convince Netflix to drop the show. Although no one knew the content that would be included, Cali K9 regularly posted on social media demonstrating harsh training methods and aversive tools as a part of their regular training. It wasn’t hard to forecast what might be in the show. It should be noted that many of the posts that showed the lead trainer utilizing tools to show off skills, have since been removed.

So what is the show like? I watched the first episode of the series and here are my thoughts.

The good

Mr. Leverette talks in the show about dogs and the emotions they feel which was nice to see given that many people still believe that dog’s do not feel much in terms of emotions. He also talks about the importance of engagement from the dog and having to be interesting to our dogs when we’re training with them – all true and all good things. In addition, he uses food, praise and toys as a part of his training, showing that he’s not on the compulsion-only side of the balanced training spectrum. Again, a good thing!

He also seems to genuinely care about the dogs he works with and has a great “dog voice”, which is the voice that he uses when working with the dogs.

Mr. Leverette also reminded the client in the first episode about how his reactive dog was a work in progress and that management and moving at the dog’s pace is important. I found this refreshing compared to many balanced trainers that I’ve seen tell clients that their dog is “cured”.

The bad

Right off the bat Mr. Leverette talks about being a pack leader. This is outdated terminology and misrepresents the social structure of dogs and how they integrate into our households.

In his visit with his client, his approach is to push the dog until it reacts. This is unnecessary and puts the dog in a stressed state. Good behavioural modification work is done under threshold (over threshold is when dogs react) so that it can address the underlying causes of the reaction – the dog’s emotional state. In that session, he pushed the dog so hard that the dog had re-directed aggression to its guardian. That was a moment which damaged the relationship between that guardian and their dog and it did not have to happen.

Mr. Leverette ended up telling his client that the only choice was to do a 3-week board and train at his facility. Board and train is a popular service with balanced dog trainers. I am not a fan and perhaps I will do a post on it one day. Regardless, the show implies that the guardian of the dog cannot rehabilitate this dog himself. Good dog trainers everywhere teach their clients how to manage dog’s similar to the one in this episode and how to achieve meaningful behavioural change without ever even interacting with the dog themselves in some cases. Most dog guardians have the capacity to work with reactive dogs themselves, without requiring a board and train. It just takes a committed dog guardian, which this guardian clearly was.

During the time at the board and train, we got to see some of how Mr. Leverette trains dogs. What did I notice during this time? Mr. Leverette uses very thin rope as collars and gives many corrections on this. The dog at one point had a very red neck. I’m not saying this was abuse, just that it clearly irritated the dog’s skin. Mr. Leverette also had surprising training techniques. He used the word “no” many times throughout the sessions and it meant many different things. He used “no” to tell the dog to not move, he used “no” to tell the dog not to react and he used “no” to tell the dog to leave it. This is confusing for dogs. “No” can certainly be used as a cue for a specific behaviour, but not multiple behaviours. Which is why this was surprising to see from him. He also corrects the dog for reacting to new people she meets. This didn’t surprise me since many balanced trainers prefer to correct and suppress behaviour instead of addressing the source of the issue.

I saw many other things I am not going to write about in this post because it’s getting a little long. Suffice it say, Canine Intervention may be an improvement of the Dog Whisperer, but it’s still teaching and promoting outdated dog training techniques, some of which have the potential to cause escalations in aggressive behaviour (correcting dogs when they react for example).

I truly believe Mr. Leverette loves dogs and cares greatly for the dogs he works with. That was clear. But I always find myself confused when I see someone in his position without any credentials or continuing education. There is no “world’s best dog trainer” out there. All dog trainers have their strengths and weaknesses and every single dog trainer out there can learn so much from regular continuing education. Mr. Leverette could become a phenomenal dog trainer and dog advocate if he employed more modern and science-based dog training methods. Methods I have no doubt he has the skillset to utilize. But he is operating on old-school methodologies based in suppressing behaviour. I’m sure he’s helped many dogs. But how many dogs could be helped without the use of force if he learned how to fully utilize modern science-based methods?

My final words: Dog training TV shows still hasn’t caught up to modern-day science-based dog training. If you do decide to watch it, be warned, just like “as seen on tv” products, you may be disappointed.